That’s why I will never give up Hong Kong
Brian Wong is a Hong Kong Rhodes Fellow and founding editor-in-chief of the Oxford Political Review.
Should i stay or go
This question is preoccupying Hong Kongers, who are desperate for what they believe to be the city’s political and civil liberties, perhaps best embodied by the shutdown of the pro-democracy Apple Daily last week.
Beijing, on the other hand, sees it as the restoration of normalcy in a society permeated by Western interference.
Many others are fed up with the sluggish economy and frustrated that the local government cannot keep up with regional rivals like Shanghai, Singapore and Shenzhen.
Those who go in search of a better life or a better career have every right to do so. But be careful, the grass is always greener on the other side. Those who choose to leave the country face a precarious future, including a lack of job opportunities and language barriers.
That is not to say that the situation is so great in Hong Kong too.
Stripped of dignity, ascent stifled by an increasingly opaque and narrow-minded economy, it is no wonder that a large majority of the city’s low-wage earners, as well as the struggling so-called sandwich classes, harbor such resentment towards Hong Kong’s rich elite.
Hong Kong, a city of over 1 million millionaires, is shaped by inequality. In 2019, 1.4 million of its 7.5 million people lived in poverty and a staggering 90% of residents live in houses less than 70 square feet for which they have to pay some of the highest rents in the world.
From the government’s questionable handling of the COVID pandemic – as evidenced by the slow adoption of vaccines – to the lack of political acumen about how to respond to escalating misunderstandings and divergences between Beijing and Hong Kong, urgent reforms are needed to Improve transparency, accountability and responsiveness.
There remains a reformist way forward that necessarily adheres to Beijing’s guidelines on critical issues, but also tries to maximize the interests of the more than 7 million people who continue to call this city their home.
Real reform will require Hong Kongers of all political orientations and walks of life to put aside their partisan, class and ideological differences – if only for the moment – in order to revive the urge for gradual and ultimately substantial change in the city’s governance, socio-economic structure and industrial landscape. None of this has to contradict the central sensitivities and fundamental demands of Beijing.
Those pushing for change must find ways to work with progressive members of the city establishment to identify and advance reform in areas where Beijing and Hong Kong interests converge. You must also argue to the central government that it would be in Beijing and Hong Kong’s interests to preserve the city’s particular assets: its cultural pluralism, laissez-faire capitalism, low taxes, and the resounding rule of the city’s right.
The focus must definitely be on what Beijing has to gain from such a reform agenda – not on selfish rhetoric that serves Hong Kong only.
That brings us to the question of democracy. The past 20 years have shown that the democratic movement’s pursuit of elections completely free from Beijing’s intervention is politically impossible. However, this does not mean that we should thereby give up the rights enshrined in the Hong Kong Basic Law, our quasi-constitution. Free, competitive elections consistent with Beijing and Hong Kong baselines are in everyone’s best interests. Still, we have a long way to go to get there.
The coalition of people and groups that can bring about change of this magnitude lies beyond the conventionally defined elites.
It must include grassroots and labor unions, as well as supporters of the pro-establishment, who recognize Beijing’s rightful share and interests in the city but are ready to steadfastly support the city’s socio-cultural idiosyncrasies. The Coalition for Change must also include mainland Chinese citizens who immigrated to Hong Kong to enjoy the stark differences, as well as moderate Democrats who have always tried – and should continue to do – civil and political freedoms within the boundaries of that Basic Law.
We must also readily acknowledge that international lobbying and one-sided criticism of China are actually of no benefit to Hong Kong. The more the international community tries to force Beijing, the less likely China will soften its position.
Compromises are best sought not through open wars, but rather through indoor dialogues and discussions in which Hong Kong’s interests are represented by all parties.
Myself, I want to stay and try to make things better for those who cannot afford to leave. Ultimately, however, I want to stay because Hong Kong is my home.
Much of what makes this city great has been damaged by the upheaval, but is basically still there: its unique blend of Western and Chinese values and ideals, its openness to trade, investment and business, its unusually dense but beautiful Urban space and its lush mountains and landscape.
The short-term forecast may be ugly, but it’s not all doom and gloom. The rumors of the death of this city are greatly exaggerated. For those still living here, we will not give up repairing this city and repairing its relations with their own country, China. The message to Beijing and the rest of the world is: don’t write us off yet.